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Ron Unz On Hispanic Crime: Nice Going, But So What?

Ron Unz’s argument [1] that Hispanics commit no more crime on average than whites has [2] caused [3]stir [4]. Some immigration restrictionists are not pleased [5]. Still, it seems to me that restrictionists (and I count myself one) should welcome any effort, including Mr. Unz’s, to identify and understand the actual effects of mass immigration, even if they turn out to be benign.

Restrictionists, after all, are playing with a handicap, for the merits of immigration policy inevitably turn on statistical judgments as to the characteristics of different populations (Mr. Unz’s article being an example).  Not long ago, analyzing these differences posed no particular intellectual problem. Everyone “stereotyped,” most often casually, sometimes pseudo-scientifically, and in a few cases rigorously.  Today, by contrast, study of group differences has become disreputable. Many now see it as a moral obligation to assume instead that differences among populations (whatever their nature or source) either do not exist or that appearances to the contrary are illusory. That any rational discussion of immigration, pro or con, takes place at all is itself a small victory for restrictionists.

On the other hand, immigration enthusiasts who welcome [6] Mr. Unz’s findings should not crow. Nobody who has studied the question thinks it’s easy to tease out of the data the relative crime rates of immigrants and natives. Even if Mr. Unz’s article ultimately proves correct, we still would not know exactly what effect immigration now has on crime. Defenders of mass immigration, however, cannot hang their case on merely the tentative conclusion that immigration probably does not increase crime.  Ensuring citizens’ personal safety, after all, is one of the most important duties of the State. (Indeed, that’s pretty much what government is for.)  Given the disastrous consequences if Mr. Unz is wrong, immigration proponents have the burden or proving with reasonable certainty that immigration will not make Americans less safe. On immigration, the Precautionary Principle [7] must govern.

I can already hear worldly libertarian pundits deriding this position.  Hasn’t the Precautionary Principle been debunked [8] as incoherent [9]? As Cass Sunstein writes in his book Worst-Case Scenarios [10], the Precautionary Principle condemns both action (“Even if we don’t know whether immigration increases crime, so long as there is at least a possibility that it will, we should restrict immigration”) and inaction (“Even if we don’t know whether restricting immigration will hurt our economy, so long as there is at least a possibility that it will, we should continue mass immigration”). Yeah, yeah I know: the Precautionary Principle, as invoked by the more naive type of environmentalist, is incoherent.

But that’s not the end of the story. Sunstein goes on to acknowledge that more limited forms of the Precautionary Principle are defensible.  In particular, the Irreversible Harm Precautionary Principle holds that if an action could cause irreversible harm, then we should restrict it until we can figure out what its consequences will actually be.  Or, as economist Kenneth Arrow put it [11] in his paper introducing the idea, if an action “involves some irreversible transformation of the environment, hence a loss in perpetuity of the benefits of preservation, and if information about the costs and benefits of both alternatives realized in one period results in a change in their expected values for the next,” then the action should be at least partially restricted.  In other words, we should be willing to pay a price just to keep our options open. The rationality of this Precautionary Principle is demonstrated every day in the financial markets, whenever investors buy options to hedge their future bets.

Now, it’s hard to imagine a policy more irreversible than immigration. Once people arrive, they tend to stick around, for better or for worse, indefinitely. Meanwhile, the harms that bringing in a new population may cause are enormous.  They include not just increased crime, but the whole litany restrictionist fears, from depressed wages and increased inequality to loss of social trust and the decaying of America’s political legitimacy (not to mention the non-monetizable but still very real loss of the culture many simply happen to prefer).  We don’t even have the data yet to know whether immigration is making our society more violent. Can’t we just wait to figure it out before we continue current policy?  That would seem to be the most sensible way to proceed, regardless of whether Mr. Unz turns out to be right.

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#1 Comment By Fran Rossi On March 1, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

“We don’t even have the data yet to know whether immigration is making our society more violent.”

Wow, you mean no one’s ever studied America before? Not one study in nearly 250 years?

#2 Comment By Austin Bramwell On March 1, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

Ms. Rossi – I am accepting Mr. Unz’s claim, as reported by Alexander Cockburn in The Nation piece linked to in my first sentence, that his analysis is original, and that the academic literature is surprisingly sparse. In a follow up post, Mr. Unz also makes an important concession that the crime rates between whites and Hispanics in 2000-06 may have sharply diverged. In any case, I agree with Alexander Cockburn that “[w]hether [Hispanics] have high crime rates or low crime rates is a huge issue for the future of America.” How is it that to such a large extent it is still an unsettled question?

#3 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On March 1, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

Prudence suggests that when considering immigrant crime, the degree of law abidingness of the sending country be considered. Mexico is not an especially placid or civic minded country. Yet among the Mexican illegals with whom I’ve interacted a horror of coming to the attention of the authorities is common. This makes sense in that sailing under our radar means continued income and remittances to their relatives. I have seen no such phenomenon among the children of illegals who swiftly adopt the toxic culture of our underclass. And if they are born here, they know that we cannot send them back.

Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable in minority heavy jurisdictions. Indeed political pressure to influence crime statistics is common even in suburban areas. As a former law enforcement officer I can assure you that cops laugh at most statistical crime reporting. Police respond to crime, they do not winkle it out. If people in the barrio are reluctant or afraid to report fights, thefts, etc. what good are the statistics going to be?

Hispanics engage in drunken driving and drunk and disorderly offenses at a very high rate. But when everyone involved is carrying bogus ID and disappear after they make bail, are they incorporated into the stats?

#4 Comment By ruddyturnstone On March 2, 2010 @ 4:13 am

“Meanwhile, the harms that bringing in a new population may cause are enormous. They include not just increased crime, but the whole litany restrictionist fears, from depressed wages and increased inequality to loss of social trust and the decaying of America’s political legitimacy (not to mention the non-monetizable but still very real loss of the culture many simply happen to prefer).”

To me, that is the crux of the issue. I don’t really think “immigrants” per se are more likely to violate criminal laws (other than the ones relating to entering and remaining in the US) than other folks. Other factors, like age, poverty, and gender way very well account for what appears to be a higher crime rate.

But I don’t care. I want to live in a country where a wage is paid for every real job that allows the worker to lead at least a minimally acceptable lifestyle here, in the USA, not only by sending it somewhere else where the living is cheaper. Our citizens don’t have that luxory. Secondly, I don’t want anyone openly flouting our laws–that leads to bad results all around. Perhaps it’s better to change flouted laws (like the drug laws) than enforce them. But every country has immigration laws, and I don’t see why it is wrong for our country to have them too. This is what I see as an issue of social trust. Thirdly, there is the issue of political legitimacy. Too many immigrants all at once is not good, because many of them are (quite understandably) more loyal to their homelands than to the USA. And, finally, but, to me, most importantly, there is the issue of culture. Our culture IS a melting pot, and, I’ll admit, it’s a mosaic too. We definitely have been enriched in lots of ways by having folks from all over the world, with their art and music, their foods, and so on. Buuuuut, I also think we do better if we retain a core culture. And that core culture is an amalgam of Anglo Saxon traditions, including the English language, a predominantly European culture (religion, art,literature, philosophy, etc), and the mores, ,manners, and customs that have been built up by Americans (whatever their country, or, indeed, continent of origin) over the centuries.

The last thing mentioned is what I value above all. Certainly above law enforcement fears, but even above concern for the US as polity too. It is the culture of MY homeland. I want my descendants to have that culture too. Not that it should remain static, or hermetically sealed from others. But that it should endure.

#5 Comment By MattSwartz On March 2, 2010 @ 9:08 am

The last thing mentioned is what I value above all. Certainly above law enforcement fears, but even above concern for the US as polity too. It is the culture of MY homeland. I want my descendants to have that culture too. Not that it should remain static, or hermetically sealed from others. But that it should endure.

The primary vehicle for the preservation of culture is the family. Others include Churches, Schools, and community organizations.

Depending on macro-level law (in a nation of 300 million) for the sole accomplishment of that task is a fool’s errand. We would all be better served to spend time investing in our own institutions rather than lobbying our reluctant Capital to do something they can’t really do in the first place, especially since a strong Federal government needs a certain amount of distrust, uncertainty and dis-function to stay healthy.